Multiple sclerosis can’t slow Lakeland hoops coach
Feb. 01, 2004
When April Arvan’s eyesight first betrayed her early that November morning in 1999, she had no idea what was happening.
She had no clue multiple sclerosis had introduced itself to her world. And she certainly didn’t understand that, even as MS was temporarily robbing her of the ability to focus, it would soon help her see life more clearly than before.
“It jump-started my heart at a time when my heart needed to be jump-started,” says Arvan, in her 10th year as head coach of the highly successful Lakeland College women’s basketball program.
“It has had a great positive impact on my life. It came during a dark time for me. This has helped me find a greater appreciation for life. I’m happier in my daily life than I was and I take nothing for granted. God has helped me on this path; he’s taken care of me. Before (MS) I was kind of floating along a little.”
Arvan doesn’t go into specifics about the dark time she describes, except to reveal that a young player on her team died, which affected her tremendously.
Says former player Quinn Klebansky, whose first season at the school was the very same season MS first struck Arvan: “She was not the woman then that she is today. And she was not the coach then that she is today. She took a negative and made it a positive, and she’s a better person for it. Would I wish it upon anyone? No way. But she has this for a reason — because she can handle it.”
Arvan, 35, owns a sparkling career record of 205-54, best in the history of the women’s program. In fact, she trails only former men’s coach Duane “Moose” Woltzen (who had 536 wins in 23 years) overall.
What’s more, the Muskies have won six Lake Michigan Conference titles and made three NCAA tourney appearances. Arvan’s winning percentage of .794 entering this season was eighth in the nation among active NCAA Division III coaches. Her teams have averaged more than 20 wins per season. And perhaps most impressively of all, none of her teams has finished with a losing record.
But you’ll rarely hear Arvan talking about personal benchmarks or milestones. Asked about her career record, Arvan says simply, “It’s a great tribute to the players we’ve had here.”
“She really kept it on the down-low,” says senior Casey Thousand of Arvan’s 200th win. “She got a little plaque, but it’s not about that for her. It’s not about wins, and it’s not about herself.”
Klebansky, who manages a restaurant in Illinois, recently paid the Muskies a visit. She had heard from someone else about Arvan getting her 200th win.
“I said, ‘how come you didn’t tell me about that?’ ” recalls Klebansky, who speaks with Arvan several times a week by phone. “She said, ‘Come on Quinner, don’t be silly. You know it’s not about that for me.’ ”
So what is it about? Ask Arvan to tell you her most prominent coaching memories, and she’ll mention younger brother Ben singing the national anthem before a game; or the night the Muskies earned their first-ever at-large NCAA tourney bid; or former player Steph Sprenger scoring her one-thousandth point in a big win over UW-Stevens Point; or former player Jill Dewane becoming the all-time school career scoring leader.
“We always talk about being 80 or 90 years old, sitting in a rocking chair and reflecting,” Arvan says. “We won’t remember the wins or the shooting percentages. We’ll remember the laughs we’ve shared and the tears we’ve cried.”
Says Thousand: “The very first time she meets with you, she stresses family.”
Adds Klebansky: “It’s never basketball first. It’s family, friendship and God. That’s what makes the program what it is, the fact that friendship and family come first. On the court, we have that drive, not only because we love the game, but because we love each other.
“What makes (Arvan) a great coach is that she treats you like a human being first.”
Facing MS head-on
Lakeland was at a two-day tournament in Stevens Point to start the 1999 season. The unranked Muskies upset highly regarded Calvin College (Mich.) in the Friday night game, and Arvan was preparing deep into the night for the Saturday title game against Bethel.
“It was about 1:30 in the morning, and I was looking over my scouting report,” Arvan recalls. “All of the sudden, my notes just split.”
She wasn’t overly concerned about the double vision, thinking she was just fatigued.
But when she awoke later that morning, there was no improvement. Ironically, center Meredith Wilmet had to leave the tourney title game victory with a scratched cornea.
“I honestly thought I was having sympathy pains for her,” Arvan says with a smile.
The problems with Arvan’s vision persisted for weeks. She went to an eye doctor, then an opthomologist and finally, a neurologist. In December, an MRI (magnetic resonance image) showed some lesions (scarring) on the brain, at which point she was told she may have MS.
“I thought ‘oh my gosh, this is not a good thing,’ ” remembers Arvan. “I didn’t know anything about it. I thought it was fatal.”
“I took it a lot harder than April did,” says Arvan’s mother, Kate. “She basically had to carry me to the car. For the first month, all I did was cry. But April is a very special young woman. She slowly got me to understand this was not the end of the world.”
In May, follow-up testing confirmed the diagnosis, and just as she tirelessly prepared gameplans for basketball, she quickly formulated one for this opponent.
“Since I am a live-in-the-day type of person, having (a positive) philosophy is easy for me,” she says.
“Yet, there are quiet times I do have, when I’m not feeling so well. The part of this I’m most afraid of is the loss of energy, the fatigue. If I need to walk with a cane someday, fine. If I need to wear a patch on my eye, that’s fine too.”
But the fatigue that can come with MS has the potential to interrupt something critical —getting her players prepared to win basketball games. This is a coach who literally falls asleep with game video playing before her eyes (“I figure maybe I’ll pick something up through osmosis,” she says).
“There have been times I could sleep all day, and probably should,” she says. “There have been times I’ve sat in my office, wondering how I’ll drive home. There have been times I say to myself, ‘I can’t pick up this pencil.’ ”
Once a week, Arvan receives an injection, which delivers a dose of medicine that is believed to have a 30 percent chance of slowing the progression of this unpredictable disease.
“I figure hey, that’s better than my shooting percentage when I was a player; I’ll take it,” Arvan jokes.
Re-focusing on life
Arvan has had MS for five years now, yet it’s not a well-known fact in the local basketball community or at Lakeland.
It’s not that she’s trying to hide it; mostly, she dreads the notion that people may feel sorry for her.
“I don’t want my team to worry about me,” she says. “I want them to know I’m OK. Just as they’re playing on sprained ankles and bruised ribs, and coming off ACL injuries, I can handle this.”
As the interview for this story came to an end, her last words were, “Please don’t make this come across as woe-is-me.”
Arvan says she’s been feeling relatively good lately. She knows full well how unpredictable MS can be, but the bouts of extreme fatigue have stayed away recently.
“It can hit for a day and be gone for weeks, or it can last for weeks, and be one day,” Arvan says.
She did experience a new symptom just last month – numbness on one side of her face. She underwent an aggressive intravenous treatment which involved receiving a steroid-based drip four days in a row for three-hour sessions.
Because the peripheral line for the out-patient IV stayed in her arm, players saw it in practice. Most know what their coach deals with, but not because she mentions it often.
“She doesn’t bring it up,” says Thousand. “It’s just not a problem with her.”
Arvan downplays her ability to coach at such a high level, despite the MS that could strike at any time in any number of ways.
“There are colleagues of mine here at this college who have things worse than I do,” she says.
She stresses how much she admires those people, and her players who deal with various injuries.
“There is so much inspiration around me, there’s absolutely no time to feel sorry for myself,” she says.
Ask players, past and present, and they’ll tell you that in the case of April Arvan, inspiration is a two-way street.
“I can’t begin to tell you in words how strong she is,” Klebansky says.
“She’s had all this on her shoulders, yet she’s always come to the court
with her game face on. She’s somebody I would love to mimic in my life.”
Copyright © 2004, Sheboygan Press